CHICAGO (NewsNation) — Throughout the nation, one can spot aging, abandoned churches falling into disrepair, some even hit hard with vandalism, covered with graffiti inside.
These churches, once cornerstones of the community, now have empty pews. However, on any given day, you could also pass by a building like Soul City Church in Chicago without realizing that hundreds of Gen Z’ers gather there to worship.
What becomes evident is American spirituality isn’t fading away; rather, it’s undergoing a transformation.
NewsNation’s Adrienne Bankert got a special behind-the-scenes look at the set of “The Chosen,” a show that airs on the CW Network and delves into the life of Jesus Christ. Bankert spoke to the cast and crew about the making of the show and the impact it has had on audiences around the country who have embraced it. Tune in to NewsNation’s special coverage “The Chosen Phenomenon,” at 9 p.m. ET on Sunday, Sept. 24. Not sure how to find us? Use our Channel Finder App to locate NewsNation on your TV.
Pastor Jarrett Stevens of Soul City Church in Chicago is very aware of the new statistics emerging regarding dechurching, but appears to have found a solution.
“The average age of our church right now is 27; I definitely feel like I’ve aged out of our church,” Stevens said. “What they don’t see, is when you create a space for people to have an authentic experience when you give them a voice a seat at the table, they’ll want to not just be involved, they’ll want to shape the church.”
However, the new generation’s church experience may be different from that of their parents.
NewsNation asked a group of young churchgoers if they prayed daily and two of the three members immediately raised their hands. Two raised hands when asked if they were “religious,” however, Hannah Gronowski Barnett said she doesn’t relate to the term.
“That probably would differ depending on how you talk about religion,” said Gronowski Barnett. “For me, religion is actually not something I relate to at all, the term religion. So, for me, it’s more of I’m actively following God and the teachings in the Bible. For me, that doesn’t feel like ‘religion,’ because in my mind religion feels like rules or a system or a structure to follow.”
Churchgoer Kayla Eastman recalls her journey growing up with a religious background, and what’s changed in recent years.
“When I was growing up in a highly religious family, it felt inauthentic because it felt like I was having to compartmentalize myself,” Eastman said. “Certain parts of me were welcome at church, but other parts weren’t, and the parts of me that struggled with mental health and the parts of me that just had a lot to deal with, and I felt like people at church couldn’t relate to (it). Now I’ve found a community to be in that values a holistic spirituality and nothing is off limits to discuss here.”
Angel Griffin described growing up in a Black church, and how her expression of religion may have evolved, but her relationship with God has not.
“I grew up in a family of ministers, I grew up in a faith-based family, I from a young age understood the difference between religion and relationship,” Griffin said. “However, I grew up in a church that over time did not really pour into the youth in the way that was needed for us.”
Gronowski Barnett pointed out that historically, it was the younger generation that led the way.
“Many people don’t know this, but many theologians who have studied the lives of these disciples, many people believe they were actually in their late teens and early 20s. So often we picture them as these old men or these out-of-touch people,” Barnett continued. “But really when Jesus first wanted to build a church, he approached the next generation of the day and said you’re going to be the ones that will help me build this movement, that will show people love, and radical inclusivity and a place of belonging.”
This particular age group seems to be at the forefront of a modern movement and this phenomenon isn’t limited to urban centers like Chicago.
For example, a revival at the University of Kentucky went on for 11 consecutive days, eventually needing to be shut down. A 1,400-person auditorium was packed to capacity after word spread on social media.
Similarly, at Oklahoma University, the “Fill The Stadium” event drew tens of thousands of young participants.
However, for some young people, their faith exists beyond the four walls of a traditional house of worship entirely
“People often ask what my beliefs are now that I’ve deconstructed,” Donnell McLachlan said in a TikTok post with more than 96,000 views. “I currently don’t practice organized religion but I am a religious pluralist. For me, this means that I think of religion as language. Just as there isn’t one right language to speak, I don’t think there’s one right way of interpreting the divine.”
McLachlan, the “TikTok theologian,” has amassed 266,000 followers keen on following his journey of “deconstruction,” as he reevaluates the beliefs he was raised with.
“I’m not coming across as anti-Christian because I’m not anti-Christian. I’m pro-religion and pro-people hanging onto ideas that ultimately help them grow into better people,” he told NewsNation.
McLachlan is one example of an influencer who has transformed his relationship with the church.
Recent statistics indicate many Americans are undergoing a process known as “dechurching,” wherein those who used to attend church at least once a month now go less than once a year.
New polling data from Gallup shows nearly half of Americans now identify as religious, while a third say they are spiritual but not religious.
Among the 82% of Americans who do hold some sort of belief system, 47% said they were religious, 33% said they were spiritual but not religious and just 2% identified as both spiritual and religious.
Over the last 25 to 30 years, this shift has led to 40 million people ceasing their regular church attendance.
“It’s the largest shift in religiosity in America over the last 200 years,” said Ryan Burge, an Eastern Illinois State University associate professor of political science. “There’s actually more people (who) left religion than joined religion during the first Great Awakening, the Second Great Awakening, and all of a Billy Graham crusades combined.”
But a level of spirituality remains.
Burge, co-author of the book “The Great Dechurching,” notes almost 88% of Americans still express some level of belief in God.
“I think spirituality is just shifting, I don’t think spirituality will ever die,” McLachlan said.
Evidence of strong spirituality among Gen Z and Millennials is something Pastor Stevens says he sees every single day at Soul City Church, and he implores other church leaders to step up and embrace the next generation. “I think the church has failed in the issue of inclusivity, and where it has succeeded, it’s lagged,” said Stevens.
“When you look at the life of Jesus, this is the most inclusive person in history, the most loving person in history, and yet those followers in his name have made it about their worldview, their interpretation, have created an ‘us vs. them,’ and ‘in and out.’ It has hurt far more people who are left on the outside of the margins,” he said.
When asked if he’s hopeful about the future of Gen Z and religion, Stevens said, “look, we’re talking about a faith that has prevailed for over 2,000 years, I’m not worried about that. I’m worried and concerned about the hands that try to hold on too tightly to it, rather than entrusting them to people who are coming up behind them.”